A first-of-its-kind report released on Tuesday finally gave a clearer estimate of how many people experience solitary confinement across both U.S. jails and prisons on a given day: 122,840.
But the figure, which makes up roughly 6% of the country’s jail and prison population, is likely a significant undercount. The calculation relies on data from state and local jails as well as state and federal prisons — data that, according to the report, had not been combined previously — but it was self-reported data, and excludes any data from immigration detention centers and youth facilities.
Still, the report, released by the nonprofit Solitary Watch and Unlock the Box, a campaign against solitary confinement, gives a more comprehensive picture of the use of solitary confinement than was previously available.
Solitary confinement, also referred to as “restrictive housing,” among other names, is used often throughout the criminal justice system, disproportionately against people of color. In 2020, a United Nations expert described solitary confinement as a method of torture when someone is subjected to it for more than 15 consecutive days.
The report was written by Jean Casella and Alexandra Rivera from Solitary Watch and Jack Beck, Scott Paltrowitz, and Jessica Sandoval from Unlock the Box. It includes figures from a report by the Vera Institute of Justice.
The report documents the recorded and estimated number of individuals in solitary confinement for 22 hours or more on any given day in 2019. The research does not account for the number of individuals who were forced to isolate or were placed in solitary confinement during the COVID-19 pandemic, which had more widespread effects after 2019.
The report also lacks data from West Virginia, the only state that does not share its solitary confinement data. Of the remaining U.S. states, Nevada reported the highest percentage of its jail and prison population confined in solitary (nearly 26%), while Delaware, on the other hand, reported 0%.
“Solitary confinement is the worst thing that can legally be done to a person in this country, short of the death penalty. It’s been proven to be a form of torture,” Casella, who serves as the director of Solitary Watch, told HuffPost.
“The idea that more than 100,000 Americans — more than 1 in 20 incarcerated people — are subjected to these conditions on a daily basis is shocking, and we hope it will move people to action,” Casella added.
“Solitary confinement is the worst thing that can legally be done to a person in this country, short of the death penalty.”
According to Prison Policy, people held in solitary confinement are more likely to die by suicide, opioid overdose or homicide when they are released. They are also likely to suffer from hallucinations, self-harm, PTSD and other long-lasting mental health issues.
The report notes that some individuals spend weeks, months or years in solitary confinement, many suffering irreparable damage.
Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), who has advocated for the end of solitary confinement, called the report’s findings a “catastrophe.”
“Inflicting solitary on one person is a moral blight on this nation. Inflicting it on hundreds of thousands of people — disproportionately Black, brown and Indigenous people — is a disaster,” Bush said in a statement emailed to HuffPost.
Lawmakers and officials, including President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, have promised they would work to end or lessen solitary confinement.
Likewise, the Federal Bureau of Prisons claims it is “taking the necessary short and long-term steps to thoughtfully address this issue, and we are confident in [BOP Director Colette Peters’] ability to effectively meet the goals of the President’s Executive Order,” a Justice Department spokesperson told NBC News, referring to Biden’s pledge to “ensure that conditions of confinement are safe and humane” and “free from prolonged segregation.”
The call to end solitary confinement has gained traction within the last decade. But, Casella told NBC, “Prisons and jails are maybe the most change-resistant government institutions we have in this country.”
“Bringing any kind of change will be a long, arduous process,” she said.
The DOJ did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
If you or someone you know needs help, dial 988 or call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also get support via text by visiting suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat. Additionally, you can find local mental health and crisis resources at dontcallthepolice.com. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention.